Tech billionaire Elon Musk drew a swift rebuke from two of the nation’s best known civil rights organizations Wednesday, after he criticized efforts by United Airlines and Boeing to hire nonwhite pilots and factory workers.
The criticism came after Musk claimed in a series of posts on X that efforts to diversify workforces at those companies have made air travel less safe. He offered no evidence for the claim, and one of his replies directed attention to a post by someone else speculating about the IQ of Black airline employees.
Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, said Musk’s statements were “abhorrent and pathetic.” He noted that Tesla, where Musk is CEO, is being sued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for alleged abuse of Black employees, including claims of racial slurs and nooses found in the workplace.
“Musk’s company not only refused to investigate complaints or take any steps to end the abuse, it viciously retaliated against employees who complained or opposed the abuse,” Morial said in a statement to NBC News, citing allegations from the suit.
“The only thing anyone needs to hear from Musk about diversity in the workplace is an apology,” he said.
NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson responded to Musk on X, saying the actual danger comes from Musk’s own social media site.
“Reminder to @elonmusk: providing a home for the proliferation of hate speech and white supremacist conspiracy theories kills people. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion cultivates a more inclusive society,” Johnson wrote.
“They are not the same. We are not the same,” he added.
Musk’s decision to wade into the subject of airline safety follows discussions that were sparked Friday when a panel blew off a Boeing jet while it was flying.
Musk’s statements on the topic started Tuesday when he responded to an X user who speculated that IQ scores of United Airlines pilots who went to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were lower than the average of IQ of Air Force pilots. Musk replied to that post with his own attack on programs that promote diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
“It will take an airplane crashing and killing hundreds of people for them to change this crazy policy of DIE,” Musk wrote, misspelling the DEI acronym.
In a separate post, Musk mocked United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby saying the executive reminded him of Kirby, the pink video game character.
Musk returned to the subject Wednesday, quote-tweeting a post from someone on X who had criticized Boeing’s diversity efforts.
“Do you want to fly in an airplane where they prioritized DEI hiring over your safety? That is actually happening,” he wrote. That post got 14 million views within a few hours.
A spokesperson for United declined to comment.
The Federal Aviation Administration sets minimum standards to fly commercial planes. The FAA raised the standards in 2013 after a fatal crash near Buffalo, requiring even co-pilots to get the same 1,500 hours of flight time as captains. Last year, the FAA rejected a request to reduce the hours requirement.
Boeing did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Musk did not immediately respond to a request for comment submitted to X.
On Thursday morning, Musk wrote on X in response to an NBC News post of this article: “Those are openly racist organizations.”
Glendon Fraser, a pilot with 38 years of commercial airline experience, said that Musk has his facts wrong. He noted that the hiring standards of airlines are higher than they were in the 1970s and 1980s.
“Talent is talent, and pilots who are being hired are of the highest quality,” he said. “I could not identify a pilot who was hired ‘as a result of DEI initiatives.’”
Fraser is the board president of the Lee A. Archer Jr. Red Tail Youth Flying Program, a pilot academy that looks for candidates of color who don’t have the resources to attend expensive flight schools.
“Unfortunately, there’s a segment of the population that would not normally have that opportunity because of the incredibly high cost of entry,” he said.
Commercial air travel is the safest it has ever been, with the number of accidents and fatalities both at a record low in 2023, according to the Dutch air-safety organization To70. Near-collisions at U.S. airports, though, have been a persistent concern.
Airlines have tried to expand the pool of potential pilots in recent years because of staffing shortages and because the cost of becoming a pilot has remained an obstacle for people who may be otherwise qualified. Those expansion efforts have included partnerships with HBCUs.
For decades, commercial airlines discriminated against nonwhite pilots despite the accomplishments of Black service members such as the Tuskegee Airmen. It took a lawsuit by a Black pilot, Marlon Green, and a Supreme Court ruling in his favor to force change. The first Black commercial airline pilot, David Harris, went to work for American Airlines in 1964.
Companies such as Delta Air Lines and United didn’t hire their first Black pilots until after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawing employment discrimination.
Musk, the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, flies on private jets, not commercial airlines, and his air travel has been the subject of numerous controversies because of the environmental impact and his demands for privacy.